Giovanni Raboni

Poet-critic in the tradition of Eliot and Pound who changed the idiom of Italian poetry

Giovanni Raboni, poet, critic and translator: born Milan, Italy 22 January 1932; married (one son, two daughters); died Parma, Italy 16 September 2004.


Giovanni Raboni was one of the most dynamic poets of the generation after Eugenio Montale.

Giovanni Raboni, poet, critic and translator: born Milan, Italy 22 January 1932; married (one son, two daughters); died Parma, Italy 16 September 2004.

Giovanni Raboni was one of the most dynamic poets of the generation after Eugenio Montale.

He was born in Milan in 1932. He studied law and practised it for some time before dedicating himself to literature and journalism. He was equally well-known as a literary, theatre and film critic and as a translator. In the last few years he had been working for the Corriere della sera, writing articles and reviews. He translated Baudelaire, Apollinaire and Proust. During the 1970s he was editor of the publishing firm Guanda, specializing in publishing modern English, American or French poets.

As a critic he not only wrote first- rate and influential criticism on contemporary Italian and French writers, as well as on Ezra Pound, but, like Pound himself, he discovered new poets and encouraged them in their work. Among his books of criticism may be mentioned Poesia degli anni Sessanta ("Poetry of the Sixties", 1976) and Quaderno in prosa ("Prose Notebook", 1981). Among his works of poetry there are Il catalogo è questo ("This is the Catalogue", 1961); L'insalubrità dell'aria ("The Unhealthiness of Air", 1963); Le case della Vetra ("The Houses of the Vetra", 1966); Economia della paura ("The Economy of Fear", 1970); Cadenza d'inganno ("Deceptive Cadence", 1975); Il più freddo anno di grazia ("The Coldest Year of Grace", 1977); Nel grave sogno ("In a Serious Dream", 1982); Quare tristis ("Why Art Thou Sad", 1998); Versi guerrieri e amorosi ("War and Love Poems", 1990); Ogni terzo pensiero ("Every Third Thought", 1993); and Barlumi di storia ("Glimmers of History", 2002); as well as theatrical works in verse, such as Rappresentazione della Croce ("Representations of the Cross", 2000) and Alcesti, o, La recita dell'esilio ("Alcestis, or, The Performance of Exile", 2002). A selection of his poems was published in English translation in America in 1985 under the title The Coldest Year of Grace. I myself had the honour of knowing Raboni personally and translating some of his poems in Contemporary Italian Verse for London Magazine Editions in 1968.

In one of his poems, "For Some Years I Have Been Trying to Get Old", he refers to himself as one "who took / such care in eating . . . who sniffed air / like a spice or as a drug dog the drug, / who sacrificed every other joy to a name / or to the sound of a name".

At my invitation, Raboni contributed an article on Ezra Pound's humanism to Ezra Pound Centenary, a book of essays published in 1990 in which, among other things, he affirmed:

The debt to Pound - mine and, I believe, that of many poets of my generation - cannot be paid, can never be paid. Precisely because he couldn't be a master, he was the only master possible, the only one we would have wished to have.

Raboni's own modernity, like that of Mario Luzi, is a happy amalgam between, to use T.S. Eliot's phrase, tradition and individual talent and goes beyond what is purely experimental linguistically and stylistically.

Both the language and the style of Raboni's poetry mark him out not merely as a post-hermetic, but decisively an anti-hermetic poet. More in line with the Montalian rather than the Ungarettian tradition, with his social and ethical as well as existential preoccupations, Raboni's poetry embodies such prose qualities as irony and understatement, clarity and concreteness of detail in its humdrum bareness - together with an undercurrent of well-controlled pathos by virtue of which he forges almost a new idiom in Italian poetry.

Being a contemporary of such post-war poets as Vittorio Sereni and Franco Fortini as well as having been influenced by poets like W.H. Auden, Pound and Eliot, on all of whom he wrote significant critical essays, Raboni studs his poetry with such prosaic details and images as that of the vase going "gradually to pieces, / rustling like a bran / gliding into the hands of the mouse / in the pantry" or perishing "in a thin crevice / as in a crazy water-clock" ("The Bad Year"); or the image of the dead Lombard people "buried like heaps of roots / in a soaked earth".

A certain reticence and aristocratic inwardness and detachment characterise the way Raboni observes and writes about people and objects, enabling him to achieve an impersonality like Eliot's; and yet, he tells us, echoing Pound, "it's time to speak out / as it was once time to remain silent / with everyone (including friends), / careful not to take / the same route, ever".

Like Montale before him, Raboni combined the professions of journalism and poetry, frequently crossing the boundary between one and the other and enriching his poetry, not so much through "incidents in the development of the soul", but through everyday common, political amd cultural events and experiences.

Raboni was born in Milan and lived most of his life there: there is something characteristically Milanese about him, representing the Lombard tradition of poetry, as in the case of poets like Vittorio Sereni, Luciano Erba, Giancarlo Majorino and Franco Buffoni.

As a critic Raboni, like other poet-critics before him, Montale himself, Sergio Solmi and Mario Luzi, wrote essays about 20th-century poets such as Sandro Penna, Mario Luzi, Andrea Zanzotto from the point of view of a contemporary poet as well as a contemporary critic, so that all his critical assessments of those poets, together with those of Sergio Solmi (as in Scrittori negli anni - "Writers through the Years", 1963), constitute an important part of the critical history of 20th-century Italian poetry.

G. Singh

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